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Ash Wednesday Lenten Reflection

Good morning,

For those who do not know me, my name is Christine Meko, and I teach English here at LaSalle. I am grateful for the opportunity to share a brief reflection on this Ash Wednesday at the start of the Lenten season.

I think it is only natural to be a bit confused by the Ash Wednesday messages. On the one hand, the readings strongly suggest that we should avoid public displays of penitence. Don’t advertise your fasting, praying, and sacrificing but instead keep righteous deeds private for only the Lord to see and acknowledge. On the other hand, we are about to receive on our foreheads a very visible, obvious mark that shines a spotlight on our beliefs and our association with the Catholic church and the Catholic faith. At no other time can you walk down the street, go to the gym, or drop into Wawa and immediately identify others in your community who share your faith. So how do these seemingly contradictory messages work in unison to shape our Lenten journey? I offer a few thoughts on why we need this very public symbol of ashes.

First, we humans are creatures of habit. We are often lulled into patterns in our current life: wake-up, go to school, go to practice, eat dinner, do homework and do it all again tomorrow. The same sort of monotony can overtake our spiritual life too. There is comfort in routine, but there is also danger in complacency. How lucky we are that the church presents a particular, finite period of time to wake us up from our routine. Forty days to assess the status quo, to acknowledge our shortcomings, and to actively improve our relationship with God. This, as the second reading today states, is “the acceptable time” to be shocked into awareness – and that shock to the system needs to be visible, and obvious, and concrete! We all know how easy it is to ignore something we cannot see. It is much harder to ignore a prominent mark of ashes and, in turn, ignore what those ashes represent. Today, the congregation needs that outward, public display to invigorate and focus ourselves for the journey ahead.

Second, the ashes are a needed reminder that yes – we are all imperfect. Ashes were not always distributed to entire congregations. Initially, only public penitents brought before the church were marked. But over time, as more and more people designated themselves as public penitents to express support and solidarity with other sinners, it became custom for the entire congregation to receive the ashes. The same idea holds true today. We all stumble. We all make mistakes, and therefore we all need God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we can use our sins as an excuse for not seeking that forgiveness. We convince ourselves that we’ve stayed away from church too long, or we’ve done something too awful, or that we are no longer welcome in the church community. But today, we look around and see that we are not alone in our weaknesses. We are called to God’s forgiveness no matter the size of the offense or the extent of the absence. Each mark on each forehead reminds us that we are not alone as we begin this Lenten journey. As stated in the readings, the next 39 days should consist of personal choices of prayer, sacrifice and fasting, the private rending of our hearts, not our garments. But today, on day one of this Lenten season, we look outward and publicly acknowledge that the journey toward Easter and resurrection is one that is undertaken by many. We are part of a community in search of compassion and redemption.

Lastly, the ashes we receive today are a clear reminder of our beginning and our end. Whatever your gender, race, or economic status, the message remains the same, from dust we have come and to dust we will return. This tangible symbol of our shared mortality compels our focus onto the gift that is life. It begs the question: How can we use these 40 days to not only “return to [God] with [our] whole heart”, but also to be “ambassadors for Christ”? If we embrace the opportunity presented by this Lenten season, embrace these 40 days as an opportunity to look inward, to evaluate our choices, to close the door and pray and sacrifice with only God’s acknowledgement, to renew and strengthen our relationship with God, and to recognize Christ in all those we meet, those who encounter us at Easter and beyond will certainly not need to see ashes on our foreheads to know we belong to Christ’s family here on earth.

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